Geniuses and their (dis)abilities

Exploring the scientific and artistic careers of Ludwig van Beethoven, Louis Braille, Mileva Marić, and Francisco de Goya

by
Raul Gomez Hernandez (Europeana Foundation)

On 14 October 1992, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the 3 December as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This day highlights how disability inclusion in our society is essential to respect human rights and to improve common social justice.

In relation to this principle, it is crucial to be aware of how people with disabilities continue their professional career to build a better future for all.

In this blog, we explore the scientific and artistic careers of Ludwig van Beethoven, Louis Braille, Mileva Marić, and Francisco de Goya.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was one of the most important figures in the history of Western music. During his career, he worked as a pianist, arranger, teacher and composer. Some of his most well-known pieces are the Piano Sonata no. 14 called ‘Moonlight Sonata’, the Bagatelle no 25 called ‘Für Elise’, the Third Symphony called ‘Heroic Symphony’, the Fifth Symphony or Destiny Symphony and the Ninth Symphony or Choral.

From an early age, Beethoven had hearing problems, which deteriorated later in life. In 1802, when his deafness was increasing, he suffered a huge depression until his last days. Then, he wrote what is known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In this letter to his brothers, he explained that he contemplated taking his own life, but he believed his artistic career should not end at this moment.

Despite his disability, Beethoven went on to complete most of his works like the 9th Symphony – assisted by hearing aids and his sense of rhythm and harmony.

Explore more: Beethoven’s Ode to Joy : a cultural kaleidoscope

Louis Braille

Louis Braille (1809-1852) was a French teacher and inventor of one of the most extended systems of reading and writing used by blind people.

Louis Braille was only 3 years old when one day, helping his father in his leather workshop, he had an accident with an awl. Following this event, his eye was infected and finally, he lost sight in one of his eyes. Later on, due to a sympathetic ophthalmia, he lost sight from his other eye.

During his school days, he learnt the Haüy system, a way for visually impaired students to read and write based on the shape and depth of letters. This system was uncomfortable because of the size and the weight of the books and was difficult to learn. Louis Braille became a teacher of history, geometry and algebra.

In 1821, from Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army, he learnt a system of communication based on 9 points. This system was adapted by Braille to 6 points and published in 1829 – the first version of the Braille system. Later on, he adapted it for musical notation.

Since then, Braille has been adapted for typewriting and computers. Nowadays millions of visually impaired people from all over the world have used braille in their education and day-to-day life.

Explore more: Louis Braille and the braille alphabet

Mileva Marić

Mileva Marić (1875-1948) was a brilliant Serbian mathematician and theoretical physicist. The scientific advances made together with her husband, Albert Einstein, led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.

Mileva Marić was born with a congenital disease which gave her a limp. For this reason, in her school days, she had issues with social interaction.

At university, she started to study medicine but changed to study physics and mathematics. She studied at a university at a time when female students were not very common. At this time, she met Albert Einstein who became her husband and workmate.

Although she developed brilliant works on theoretical physics, Albert Einstein did not recognise her widely as a co-author of his works. The only reference Einstein made to their work is in letters they sent each other.

Despite a difficult childhood and living in a time when women were not recognised for their scientific advances, Mileva dedicated her life to science – a great example of her perseverance.

Francisco de Goya

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) was one of the most important Spanish artists in the history of art. He worked as a painter for the upper-class aristocracy in Spain like Count of Floridablanca and the Duchess of Alba among others, before working for the Spanish royal family under Kings Charles III and Charles IV.

Goya went to school in Zaragoza and was an apprentice to the painter José Luzán. Some years later, he moved to Madrid to study with Raphael Mengs and tried to be accepted into the Royal Academy of Art. In 1770, he moved to Italy but, in 1773, he came back to Spain to work with Francisco Bayeu developing his own style based on neoclassical and rococo styles.

During the 1770s and 1780s, he painted major religious artworks. From 1783, he worked for the upper-class aristocracy painting portraits. In the late 1780s, he started to work for the Royal Family of Spain.

From 1792 to 1793, Goya is thought to have suffered from a serious disease which left him deaf, as well as possibly making him deeply anxious. This coincided with the most important period of de Goya’s career, painting the disasters of the Peninsular War, the caprices, and the portrait of King Charles IV of Spain. Some of these works like Los Caprichos are related to the time when he suffered a huge depressive episode. For this reason, during this period, there are lights and shadows in his artworks – from formal portraits to artworks connecting with his darkest feelings.

Explore more: Gallery of disabilities portrayed in art
Art Beethoven disabilities Music Science